Taking Modernism to the Woodshed

John Haber
in New York City

Martin Puryear

Martin Puryear begins his retrospective in MoMA's multistory atrium, but his work does not just tower above. It lifts one's eye with it, to get the full measure of the walls and windows. Rather than cut that wasted space down to size, it exaggerates the proportions, with sculpture that seems to extend to the vanishing point.

Puryear pulls it off with the show's most vulnerable structures and humble materials. It does not look half bad from above either. It looks even better as one circles back to get close. For such formal and crafted work, it implies any number of hidden histories. A postscript eight years later finds him with works on paper, elegant designs, and an unforeseen African American history. Martin Puryear's Deadeye (Agnes Gund Collection, 2002)

Chutes and ladders

Not every work there has died since Yoshio Taniguchi devoted several floors to a glorified hotel lobby. True, as Jed Perl noted, Water Lilies by Claude Monet looked as pink and pathetic as a Band-Aid. And true, MoMA has acknowledged the need for more serious display space by cutting a deal with yet another likely high-rise neighbor. Still, Rhapsody by Jennifer Bartlett held new lessons without having to wind through several rooms. Even paintings of ordinary dimensions by Cy Twombly have managed, and Pipilotti Rist threatens to overflow the space altogether on video, as she will four floors of the New Museum for Rist in retrospective. Consider, however, how this artist does it.

One work, somewhere between a cart and a hand truck, bears a light-colored boulder. Its size and the cut planes of its surface assert its enormous mass. And in place of the rear of the cart, a tree limb tapers into the sky. At least it appears that way, for one has still to ask what Puryear has found in nature and what of nature he has learned to craft.

A second work ascends just as precipitously. Ladder for Booker T. Washington twists and narrows, as if seen in perspective. Its title, by suggesting a monument, exaggerates its height further. Implicitly, too, Puryear insists on his own stature as an artist. Last time out, even Richard Serra chose to skip the atrium. An African-American, Puryear seems to say, need concede nothing to Minimalism.

Yet one could just as easily single out his modesty. Strip the installation of its metaphors. Rather than single-point perspective, the bends and tapering would then leave only fragility. The odd back of the cart would deny him a lever to move the rock or the world. Found image and object would deny him an artist's shaping hand or special privilege.

The two works share the atrium with a third, in a decidedly haphazard arrangement. Instead of installation art, they have roots in modern sculpture and Surrealist painting. The ladder may quote a painting in MoMA by Joan Miró, and Constantin Brancusi long ago took wooden sculpture off its pedestal. Nor should one take for granted a claim to speak for history, including black history. As always, Puryear came up with his title as an afterthought.

Upstairs in the sixth-floor galleries, his work has the same ambition and ambiguity. It can look funny or formal, modest or massive, obsessively crafted or hung out to dry. The installation departs from chronology. One can walk through it quite quickly before realizing how much one has seen—or how much one has missed. The sculptor did not evolve all that much anyhow. He wanted something less single-minded than at first appears.

Humanizing the minimal

Born in 1941, Martin Puryear usually comes with the awkward label Post-Minimalist. He says that he took Minimalism in and spat it out, but I am not so sure. Except in the atrium, his work has a size typical of Minimalism. It has no pedestals and rests of its own weight. It favors regular shapes like cones and cylinders. One circulates around it rather than contemplates it from a detached distance.

It also has Minimalism's interests in process and in materials of the work world. Upstairs, an incomplete circle on the wall resembles a bottle opener, and Puryear calls several works Lever. As a black man, he has made it through the culture wars without producing overtly political art. At the same time, though, he humanizes his inherited forms. He gives them a history—in modern art and in their own organic growth.

Like Joel Shapiro, he has kept simple building blocks but turned from synthetic and industrial substances to wood. At times it takes on a fine polish, and at times it looks roughly hewn. Do not, though, too hastily associate the polished surfaces with art or the rough ones with nature. Puryear's dialogue with craft and materials takes all sorts of turns.

Like Shapiro's, too, Puryear's assemblages may have the look of living things. Lever may pun on a hare or a snail. A basket may have the nib of a bird. Living things enter through suggestions of use as well. A pinched torus with a suggestive profile, titled Deadeye, looks a bit like a crude jug left unstoppered. As in the atrium, even the material from a tree can serve as found object.

Minimalism insisted on a work's physical presence, inseparable from the viewer's incursion into a shared space. Shapiro, for one, alludes to the human body in his stick figures. Puryear, too, introduces the body as both image and object. His wood slats might cradle the viewer. An encounter with the human hand has the playfulness of a child's toy and the sly edge of an adult's manipulation. His cones resemble baskets for a ball game—or a shell game.

Yet he looks back before Minimalism, too. How unique was 1960s art after all? David Smith, Smith's white sculpture, and Louise Nevelson had incorporated the workshop and tool bench into their images well before. Puryear's wooden atrium tower also makes me think of V. Tatlin's Monument for the Third International. A proper Minimalist, Dan Flavin, had already quoted just that.

A place to stand

Puryear's materials and references to tools also refer to his craft. A bare circle of Cerulean on the wall conveys both the geometric rigor of the 1960s and a boast: this is all it takes to make art if the artist says so. Think of the fable of the painter who proved his skill simply by drawing a circle.

Other materials include tar, perhaps an assertion of black history after all, in Puryear's native Washington, D.C., and the rural south. He has taken Modernism back to the woodshed, but not for punishment. Coal tar makes black his most prominent color as well.

The 1970s was never just a final, watered-down version of formalism or a sudden turning away. Rather, it also serves as a transition between late Modernism and the present, between math class and phys ed. Work that already rests on the ground can offer to slide about or to melt away. It can even rise up again toward the sky. Phallic overtones welcome, but not without self-awareness of the limits of art.

Puryear's retrospective goes well with the Studio Museum's "Black Artists and Abstraction." His low-key style and allusiveness comport, too, with "post-black identity," as with Kori Newkirk and Demetrius Oliver. That label did not exist when Puryear set to work, but he could well have anticipated it.

His quiet style has made him easy to take for granted. He has a sense of humor, but he never laughs at things, including art. He pares things away, but without the harsher implications of hewn, piled fragments by Ursula von Rydingsvard. He makes baskets, but not as part of a ghetto playground for David Hammons. He makes art of the museums, but only now does a museum give him the show he deserves.

Perhaps he is easy to take to heart, harder to take as one's cause. He knows quite well when and when not to pick a fight. He has too much concern for art, too much clarity, and too much detachment not to know. He also has too much confidence. As someone once said about a lever, "give me a place to stand on and I will move the world." So what if the lever one day blossoms into a tree?

Postscript: a little teapot

Had he wished, Puryear could have become a household icon. Thanks to the Morgan Library, his work may yet become one. A show of works on paper and sculpture recovers his design sense, while again insisting that the museum has a stake in modern and contemporary art, too. It also insists on the artist's roots in expressive and figurative art, even in work that could stand for an ordinary household product. It notes his personal history in black culture, but it does not necessarily unfold in black America.

Many more people know Michael Graves from his tea kettle than from his buildings. In its simplicity and utter refusal of quaintness, it has none of the slick Postmodernism of Graves in architecture. (I confess, I own a knockoff myself.) And the focus of Puryear's "Multiple Dimensions" is missing only its spout. You may be tempted to start pouring anyway.

It is, first and last, abstract sculpture, but its plainness thrives on ambiguity. Its bulging outline could pass for the haunch of an animal, with the small round loop at right its head. Then again, it could represent a human head, its face buried in earth or sand. Another version in the small lobby gallery transforms it into a monument, dwarfing the model person beside it. Excuse me, though, if I still want to see it in stores, with that loop its handle. It would bring the energy of mass culture to a fine sculptor's courtly silence.

Not for Puryear the stark geometry of Tony Smith or the dangerous welding of Melvin Edwards. Not for him the industrial materials of Minimalism and its way of refusing to get up off the floor. Between his reticence, his hints of expressionism and human form, and his belief in traditional media, he could belong to another country or another time. Yet he had a studio in Brooklyn until a fire in 1977 destroyed its contents and drove him to Chicago. He later moved to upstate New York. Another sculpture, two tree limbs descending from a small open cube high on the wall, places him squarely with the raw physical sensation of American Post-Minimalism.

Drawings and prints upstairs, curated by the Art Institute of Chicago, seek to restore the human context to all his work. The show's title aside, with its reference to sculpture, they display him as working along a single dimension. He joined the Peace Corps in 1964, stationed in Sierra Leone. While he sketches camels there and a shelter, he prefers people, faces, and silent suffering. The show soon leaps ahead to just the last fifteen years, with an abundance of human heads, darkly shadowed but close to abstraction. Even in Conté crayon, a demanding medium that rewards precision, the accumulated lines smear out into blackness.

As its centerpiece, the upstairs gallery also has the show's largest sculpture. Thick blond timbers take the shape of a bottle turned on its side, as if about to pour. And works not in the show do indeed have a spout, like the one pictured here. Within the vessel, though, additional sculpture has the shape of an ampersand and a period—their accumulated mass in fruitful contrast with the open lattice. Are they enclosed by the sculpture or looking beyond it? Either way, they signal more than meets the eye.

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Martin Puryear ran at The Museum of Modern Art through January 14, 2008, and at The Morgan Library through January 10, 2016.


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